Workforce Summit: Solid Solutions Already Underway to Address Shortages

By Kathryn B. Creedy

A Pair of Shorts BKW
A Pair of Shorts Photo: Kathryn Creedy

No one could walk away from the recent FAA Workforce Summit without feeling optimistic and energized about the future, especially given the fact the summit attracted 700,000 online viewers on FAA’s Facebook page. Speakers reported there was more interest than ever in pursuing aviation as a career and solutions targeted both pilots and aviation maintenance technicians.

“There were a lot of concrete ideas for solving our problems and it was great to hear all the grass roots programs to get kids interested in aviation,” said RACCA President Stan Bernstein of the one-day event. “But it was also sobering. There is a lot of work needing to be done to reach workforce goals including the changes needed in the financial, regulatory and legislative arenas which constitute a significant barrier not only to entry but to incorporating 21st Century training techniques into civil aviation programs.”

Speakers called for a holistic approach and training reform.

“Nothing can be off the table,” said National Air Carrier Association President George Novak.

Experts, including Bernstein, reported how pilot shortages are affecting cargo carriers and e-commerce as well as communities and the fact many training slots are taken by students from other countries.

Others recounted recruiting efforts expanding down to the elementary school level and the return of “cool” to the aviation career. Perhaps most gratifying, however, was the training changes being tested now by the US Air Force that will produce better pilots in half the time.

USAF Provides Path to Train Better Pilots in Half the Time

The inclusion of such groups as Women in Aviation and the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP) provided a unique look into one of the most problematic issues in the industry – the lack of racial and gender equality in the workforce. Indeed, many speakers, including OBAP, spoke of their efforts in getting off the airport and into the inner cities to attract the next generation and the importance of addressing transportation for under-served communities. Republic Airline even has a mobile classroom with four Virtual Reality simulators to reach beyond the airport into local schools.

“It is part of our solution to help ensure we stay ahead of the tsunami shortage,” said Senior Vice President Matt Koscal. “We need to replicate this nationwide. We need a lot of help to ensure financing is available and we definitely need to address this at the regulatory and legislative levels.”

Rising Pressure to Make Changes

“I’ve never seen such a collection of experience talking on a single issue,” Acting FAA Administrator Dan Elwell, said in his closing remarks. “We have ‘violent agreement’ that workforce development is a real and pressing challenge and shortages are already costing the country and the industry.”

Recruiting issues are compounded by training issues, said Bernstein. “If you visit the larger flight schools, the population is largely made up of foreign students whose training is being paid for by their governments,” he explained. “Few stay in the US. When they return home, they become first officers on an Airbus with 300 hours, while our students are still flight instructing.”

Elwell agreed. “This is a global problem but we are spending a large portion of our training resources on solving other countries’ problems,” he said. “We are spending our national resources on helping the rest of the world to catch up.”

But, according to Novak, it is actually the US that has fallen behind.

“Europeans and Asians are in front of US right now in terms of solutions,” he said echoing many speakers. “The US is behind the curve on this. ICAO is in front of us and we have to look at what they have done. This is not just about the loss of air service as aircraft are grounded. It means that manufacturing is not taking place which is an indirect result of shortages. This impacts manufacturers and defense readiness and will be a crisis in the coming years that will have larger impacts than we see now.”

Millennials Demand Changes

Bernstein also pointed out the industry is facing a new generation unlike any encountered before. “One of the most important issues is the fact we are dealing with a different generation of pilots in the same old-school way,” he said, echoing US Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson’s comment training regimes haven’t been changed in 30 years. “We are encountering the millennial generation and have to adapt and change our ways to address that. This new generation is looking for quality of life and we have to find ways to deliver that. Addressing workforce issues that need to change allows us to grow and expand, something we can’t do now because of the critical shortage.”

Screen Shot 2018-09-25 at 9.59.53 AM

He also spoke of other shortages, echoing several other speakers. “Simulators are taxed to the limit and it takes months to schedule a session,” he said. “There is a shortage of designated pilot examiners and CFIs. These are all issues that need to be addressed. There is no one solution to all the problems we face. It is our long-term, strategic responsibility to develop programs, training partnerships and flow-through programs but our immediate problem is real because aircraft are grounded. Management is flying more often and that is taxing other departments. There are no magic wands here so we have to attack this on multiple fronts including modernizing training and developing financing. What we have not mentioned is national aviation academy. Perhaps it is time to look at that as one of the solutions.”

RACCA, said Bernstein, has long been working with universities to restore the pipeline. “We have a long-term, strategic responsibility to develop programs, training partnerships and flow-through programs,” he said, citing the FedEx Purple Runway and the UPS Gateway programs. “These new flow through programs are up to date examples of meeting the new pilot needs for our regionals as well as guaranteeing future pilot availability for our integrator partners. I’m proud to point out one of our members – Cape Air – created the nation’s oldest pathway program with JetBlue and has provided the model of all other programs.”

The effort to develop pathway programs, said Jason Blair, representing the Flight School Association of North America (FSANA), must be replicated at the flight school level.

“The collegiate training environment is doing a fantastic job, but is only one part of the training pipeline,” he said. “When we look at the numbers, we find that even though there are technically over 100,000 CFIs in the FAA database, many of them are working other aviation jobs, such as airline pilots, and that on any given two-year period only about 12,000 of those CFIs have actively signed off even one applicant for a rating or certificate.”

2018-pilot-outlook Boeing

Courtesy: ERAU Prescott

Speakers suggested the creation of a professional CFI, giving greater recognition to this lynchpin job. “Our CFI jobs are transient and many that do the job flow upward to other jobs and only do it for a short period of time, but keep their CFI certificates active so they don’t lose them,” explained Blair. “Additionally, we have lost many Designated Pilot Examiners (DPEs) over recent years. Couple this with a drop in pass rates on practical tests across the board of 5-6% and we see a need for an additional 5,000-6,000 practical tests in our system. With fewer DPEs, and more tests needed, we have seen constrictions of testing availability in the high-density training areas with some areas experiencing wait times upwards of five weeks to even schedule a test. FSANA and an industry group are working actively with the FAA to address this challenge, but it takes time and it will also take attracting qualified individuals to become DPEs and to the FAA in Air Safety Inspector (ASI) positions that oversee the DPEs and help keep them current and qualified to do their work.”

Many speakers urged industry to think outside the box viewing the problem of recruitment and training holistically.

MRO Industry Needs to Think Outside the Box

Bernstein’s comments were echoed by Aeronautical Repair Station Association Vice President Brett Levanto who noted that thousands of young people who self-identify as wanting an aviation career go elsewhere upon graduation.

“By 2027, we will be 9% short of what is needed,” he said. “The shortfall can already been seen by the money left on the table and aircraft left on the tarmac for lack of personnel. The capacity for maintenance is not about square feet in the hangar or the number of benches in the component shop. It is about the people you can put into the space that have the experience and technology to work. The inability to find workers is already costing billions in our inability to take on new work, expand and meet demand. The problem is maintenance skills, knowledge and experience are in incredible demand. They get the training and then go to other industries because of wages or location. This is a tremendous opportunity to address this challenge to not only get them in the door but develop a formal pathway through mentors. This is how we not just replace the current generation but how we achieve a healthy workforce so we never have to talk about this again.”

He also said one of the bigger hurdles is convincing parents to allow the pursuit of careers as an aviation maintenance technician. Also needed is supporting an increase in technical and vocational education by returning to such options as apprenticeships.

Cost of Doing Nothing

Levanto reported members have 1,045 open technical jobs but, projected across the entire FAA-certified repair stations in the US alone, the shortfall is closer to 11,000.

“The weakening focus on technical skills development and hands-on careers, which have been sacrificed in the name of ‘college-track’ learning in primary and secondary schools, has produced a deficit in applied knowledge,” he said, echoing many speakers who mourned the lack of focus on vocational and technical schools to help solve industry problems. “Without basic understanding of tools, mechanical systems and repair fundamentals in potential applicants, both technical schools and employers are left scrambling to fill workforce gaps without a reliable pipeline of individuals ready to fill open positions. Instead, we must think holistically about the maintenance workforce. In addition to individually-certificated A&P mechanics, which tend to dominate the discussion, employers and policymakers must embrace and encourage growth of repairman and non-certificated technicians.

ameriflight-brasilia

Aviation Technician Education Council’s Chuck Horning agreed. “While certification remains the gold standard, and I don’t want to diminish its value, we have to recognize no one is hired for their certification,” said Horning. “They are hired based on their character, their willingness to learn and be part of a team. The pathway concept needs to be applied to the maintenance side. We need to develop a three- to five-year program to train them up. We shouldn’t be hidebound by what is needed coming in the door. Being open minded can help us in terms of what we need. Without technicians airplanes are only yard art.”

He spoke of the fact education starts at what a wrench is. “In the past, teenagers were taking apart cars and lawnmowers but they don’t do that much anymore,’ he said. “Today, schools have a conundrum because students are coming in without mechanical aptitude they once had. That is compounded by employers wanting higher skills than was in demand years ago. So the curriculum is in need of modernization, including simulation. The technology used in maintenance training has to be develop to make it more efficient.”

Elwell agreed. “We have also seen that a four-year degree is often not necessary and we have to expand the horizon,” he concluded. “We have to focus on solutions because I know, in my gut, opening aviation careers to all Americans who have the skill and aptitude only gets us so far. The question is how we improve training so new pilots can be transformed into to safer experienced professionals the traveling public deserves. We are not going to compromise we need to remember it is not going to be enough to maintain our current level of safety we need to actively improve on it.”

Maintenance also took center stage as Suzanne Markel, president and CEO of Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics (PIA) of training students while minimizing cost burdens and complications. She underscored the challenges facing any organization seeking to develop technical talent, including duplicative and inconsistent FAA oversight, lack of available testing resources, restrictive curriculum and poor outreach to underrepresented populations. This mirrored what AF Secretary Heather Wilson said in her remarks about the unnecessary duplication in pilot training.

Conclusion

The FAA Workforce Summit was unique because it did not stop with just quantifying the problems and consequences industry faces if nothing is done. Speakers came armed with ideas and solid recommendations on what needs to be done. It is clear the work needs to happen on multiple fronts, as Bernstein suggested. NACA suggested looking abroad and at the international pilot training standards created by ICAO. ARSA, ATEC and Elwell favored expansion of vocational education and apprenticeships. The Air Force is developing programs to train better pilots in half the time. All careers can also benefit from mentoring programs which not only helps students remain in the aviation game when they are faced competing careers upon graduation.

The question remains, however, whether the summit will result in a good feeling with nothing concrete to show for it. Or, will it result in wholesale changes to how we recruit, educate and work with the next generation. The good news is it was clear participants were very anxious to get on with the many tasks ahead.

fotosearch_k12155813

Good News on the Pilot Front

By Kathryn B. Creedy

  • Robust commercial pilot enrollments at universities
  • Time between graduation and airline hiring reduced from two years to 37 days
  • CFIs desperately needed
  • Pilot age rising to between 47 and 50
  • Pilot quality and shortage issues remain unresolved

Republic pilot boards for takeoff 8 - Copy.JPG

Cargo carriers are gaining interest from University of North Dakota students who said they would likely choose cargo operations as a career move, University of North Dakota Director Aviation Industry Relations Kent Lovelace told attendees at the Regional Air Cargo Carriers (RACCA) conference. But the industry needs to do more to get them in the door. He also noted the time it takes to get a job has shortened to months, not years.

However, it should not be assumed that robust enrollments and accelerating flight hours before graduation has solved the pilot shortage. It has not, according to numerous speakers at the World Airline Training conference in April. In fact, speakers at the conference advocated for overhauling how airline pilot training is done, streamlining the process using advanced learning technologies, getting students out of the classroom and re-designing training programs to better suit how students want to learn. Many speakers offered ways to do that while maintaining high training quality.

Using the results of the university’s latest pilot supply forecast, Lovelace reported students are now more aware of cargo operators as a career option and, more importantly, understand the quality experience cargo operations offer.

“We asked how likely they were to choose a regional cargo carrier and 53.8% said they were likely to do so,” said Lovelace, adding there are things cargo operators can do to improve those odds. “We also asked them to describe why they wouldn’t choose cargo carriers. Half the comments related to compensation with salary being a big influencer although quality of life is still big. Other issues include the type of aircraft, missing a social connection and wanting to work with people/passengers. Others said they didn’t want to work alone or fly at night. There is a misperception of how the industry actually operates. We have told them working for a cargo carrier in a single pilot operation at night over the mountains will make them a much better pilot.”

Screen Shot 2018-05-15 at 10.16.53 AM

Lovelace cited concerns there were no defined career pathways at cargo carriers. “They want to know they have a path to the next step,” he said. “They want to know what they need to do to have the quickest route to the major. Cargo carriers need to educate them on what is involved in flying for their airlines.”

Screen Shot 2018-05-15 at 10.17.55 AM

Screen Shot 2018-05-15 at 10.18.51 AM

Applications and Certifications Up

“The good news is, according to the FAA, student pilot certifications are up a little, while private pilots and commercial certifications are both up for the second year in a row,” he said. “CFI certifications are up for the third year in a row. The only bad news is the age of the pilot population is also growing to between 46 and 50 for a commercial or ATP license and that is a little troubling.”

Screen Shot 2018-05-15 at 10.14.00 AM

For the Fall 2018, there are 800 new commercial flight major freshman and transfer admits, he reported. “Over a three-year period we have doubled our input of students because of all the opportunities that are now out there,” he said. “Opportunity equals demand. Our typical yield rate from such admissions is 60-70% and that translates to 500 new commercial flight majors.”

Lovelace also reported the reversal of a trend away from pursuing an airline pilot career. “A decade ago, students who wanted to pursue a piloting career was on the downslope,” he said. “Now it is rising. Interest in military careers, however, is way down.”

One of the biggest changes is the time it takes to get a job. “Among UND graduates the time between graduation and applying for the R-ATP is shorter,” he said. “It is down from two years to 37 days. That means they are achieving more flying time while they are in college so by the time they graduate they almost have the time accumulated to be hirable. Our December 2017 graduates had many who had nearly 1,000 hours. The students themselves are accelerating the process.”

Screen Shot 2018-05-15 at 10.19.58 AM

The shortening of the time between graduation and hiring has significant implications for safety as WATS speakers reported the more time between the two milestones, the greater the decline in pilot quality. Studies have found the further away a candidate is from the structured training environment they enjoyed in college or flight school, the more discipline and professionalism they lose. The trend toward hiring so soon after graduation is expected to improve pilot quality.

Training Industry in Desperate Need of CFIs

The university’s CFI class this summer has a record 50 students scheduled. “They are scheduling summer sessions to get flight courses done,” he said adding the same trends are being played out at Auburn and Embry Riddle. “We are up 35%, Auburn is up 30%, Middle Tennessee is up 19% and ERAU is up 20%. For the most part, all the collegiate programs are reporting a noticeable increase in enrollment of students wanting to fly professionally. In addition, the percent of international enrollment is down at our Grand Forks campus as we have shifted more of our contract student training to our facility in Mesa, AZ.”

All schools are reporting CFI staffing issues with top concerns focused on high turnover and the lack of multi-engine instrument (MEI) and initial CFI instructors. At UND the average CFI tenure is 13.9 months. It has only 171 of the 220 CFIs it needs to operate at an optimal levels. Only 17% have an MEI, with the university footing the $6,300 bill for MEI training.

Lovelace reported university resources are being stretched.

“Instructors are leaving when they get close to 1,000 hours,” he said. “High turnover is a problem for the training community. The 18- and 12-month commitment we were asking for in exchange for free MEI, did not have a high acceptance rate. When we changed the commitment to 150 hours of twin instruction the acceptance rate went way up. Students are flying more while they are in school and are working as flight instructors their senior year and some in their junior year. If  they instruct  their senior year they have moved on to the next step in their professional piloting careers within five to six months after they graduate. Because there are so many opportunities we can’t provide enough incentives for them to stay and instruct. The training community needs more CFIs.”

UND has nearly 900 students on the flight schedule with 32% of its CFIs already at 750-1000 hours. Some 69% of MEIs have between 750-1000 hours. If the R-ATP rule were to change to 750, 40% of students would be without an instructor.

He cautioned the industry to be careful with efforts to lower the pilot hourly requirements of R-ATP with institutional authority from 1000 to 750. “We computed that would drop our production by 40% so it could have serious negative impacts for the training community to give you enough pilots down the road,” he said.

Lovelace echoed JetBlue Senior Vice President Warren Christie, who also spoke at the conference, in saying the number one reason for losing a student is cost, with most losses coming in the first to second year. The industry may need to consider financial solutions to mitigate the issue, he said.

 

Game Changer: Flight Safety Foundation Weighs in on Pilot Training

Independent safety experts are being ignored in favor of legislative politics

By Kathryn B. Creedy

In the pilot training and experience debate, little coverage is given to independent safety experts who call for an overhaul in the way we train pilots. In all the political rhetoric, the two sides – Colgan families, a labor union and legislators vs. the regional airline industry – often talk passed each other while independent safety voices are drowned out by politics as the pilot shortage worsens.

The Flight Safety Foundation (FSF), one of the most highly respected aviation safety organizations in the world, issued a Position Paper calling for science-based pilot training solutions versus relying on a minimum number of hours to assess pilot quality.

Disappointingly, but certainly not a surprise, coverage was limited to the issuance of the paper and failed to explore the subject further. In fact, no one has explored what aviation safety experts think is necessary, despite the wide-spread agreement by experts who have no other motivation for their efforts than safety.

FSF conclusions echo a 2015 report by the Office of Inspector General calling for an overhaul in pilot training to address concerns in how crews monitor aircraft in an automated age. It cited the Air Asiana crash in San Francisco, the crash of a UPS cargo jet in 2013 and the Colgan 3407 accident in Buffalo, noting crews were not properly monitoring the condition of the aircraft  and confirming training issues were not just restricted to regionals.

OIG also cited a 2010 Flight Safety Foundation study reporting 80% of the 30 veteran commercial airline pilots it studied flew manually under 10,000 feet but were unable to meet standards using only basic instrumentation if automation failed. Indeed, OIG and FSF recommendations are the same made by a score of speakers at last Fall’s Royal Aeronautical Society’s Maintaining Pilot Recruitment and Training Standards conference.

The question we should be asking legislators and ALPA is why they ignore the mounting evidence and the collective wisdom of what needs to be done from independent experts from around the world. They raise red flags on pilot training methodology that goes far beyond the petty war being waged by legislators on regionals.

Safety arbiters sidelined by politics

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 12.37.07 PM

The nation’s two safety arbiters – The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) – openly admit they have been sidelined by politics in the wake of the Aviation Safety and FAA Reauthorization Act of 2010. This despite the fact during hearings on the bill before it passed, both rejected the idea hours alone are an appropriate metric of a pilot’s skill citing the fact all the pilots involved in regional and most commercial accidents had far more than 1500 hours.

FSF agrees. “It cannot be assumed that critical skills and knowledge will be obtained only through hours in the air,” said FSF President Jon Beatty, in releasing the Position Paper – Pilot Training and Competency. “A data-driven approach to pilot training is an essential element in continuing to improve the industry’s safety performance. Training must target real-world risk and ensure a progressive and satisfactory performance standard.”

Beatty countered assertions made as recently as the February 27th House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee hearing the outstanding safety record was due solely to the 2010 law.

“The results speak for themselves,” ALPA President Tim Canoll testified. “In the 20 years prior to the 2010 rule, 1,100 passengers lost their lives in Part 121 accidents. Since the rule that has been reduced to zero.”

ALPA’s statement is misleading since the 1,100 including 9/11, TWA 800 and other accidents, but ALPA would have you believe they were all, with their myriad of causes, resolved by requiring every pilot to have 1500 hours and the new law. In fact, the 1500-hour rule did not become effective until 2013 with no accidents in the intervening three years. Seems the industry got the job done without it.

But such reality doesn’t stop ALPA. When asked for a comment on the FSF report, ALPA spokesperson Corey Caldwell sent this: “While ALPA appreciates the work that went into the white paper, we are disappointed that the Flight Safety Foundation chose to omit the fact that since Congress passed the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Extension Act of 2010, there have been zero fatal passenger airline accidents in the United States. In the two decades prior to enactment of the law, which strengthened pilot training and qualification requirements, more than 1,100 people died in U.S. passenger airline accidents. This change in the law and associated rules have moved the United States into an environment where flight training, flight time, and demonstration of competency are well balanced – and has resulted in safer skies.”

On the contrary, FSF, rather than omit the relationship between the law and the safety record, addressed it head on.

“[The industry’s] outstanding safety record is attributed to a variety of factors and the diligent efforts of thousands of aviation professionals around the world…,” said the FSF press release. “It is not the result of any one factor, including any particular change in the hours requirement for pilot experience.” (My emphasis.)

In fact, it put credit for our safety record where it belongs.

Big data important to aviation safety

FSF cited the collection and analysis of safety data and information as key to mitigating risks before they lead to accidents. That risk-based approach clearly is successful and applies just as much to pilot training as any other aspect of aviation safety.

The regional industry has been saying for years the experience garnered by flying banners, reporting traffic and instructing is actually doing more harm than good based on data on how new hires fared in training. This was later confirmed by academic studies showing the quality of some pilots has deteriorated because they lose the professionalism and discipline so important to NTSB. As a result, regionals have increased their training footprint from 10 to 15 sessions.

“Pilot experience, which also is an important safety factor, historically has been associated with the number of flight hours accumulated over a pilot’s career,” FSF said. “What often is overlooked, however, is the quality of flight time and how it is accumulated. Was it in single- or multi-engine aircraft? In visual or instrument conditions? In a structured, professional environment, or in an often less intense, general aviation environment? The type of experience and the flight environment must be considered to provide meaning to the [flight hours] number.”

FSF’s final conclusion is simple: “[FSF] believes the pilot career path we have today will not take us where we need to go tomorrow. It is time to take a data-driven, pragmatic approach. The industry has reached a crossroads in determining how pilots need to be selected, hired, trained and mentored for career growth. Changes need to be made if the industry is to continue its stellar safety performance in an era of expected rapid growth in many regions of the world.”

Being bold

FSF’s Position Paper, the OIG report, the collective wisdom of global experts and concerns raised by the regional airline industry itself, demand we put politics aside and clear a path for the future.

“The industry needs to be courageous and bold to make these changes and not simply rely on the ways of the past,” Beatty concluded. “Through these changes, the industry can continue to serve the needs of the airlines while enhancing safety standards on behalf of the traveling public.”

fotosearch_k12155813

 

 

 

FedEx’s Fleet Modernization Signals Commitment to Community Air Service

By Kathryn B. Creedy

Nothing says commitment like a $275 million investment and that is exactly what FedEx signaled when it announced in November it was bankrolling a potential 100-aircraft order for Textron’s new Cessna SkyCourier 408. But the order is far more significant than just a new aircraft.

FedEx-SkyCourier 2
Cessna’s exciting new SkyCourier 408 has twice the capacity of the Cessna Caravan. Photo: FedEx

FedEx was also signaling a huge commitment to the continued development of its small community air service, a refreshing departure from what is happening in the rest of the regional industry in which small communities have been shunted aside since the mid 1990s. The situation worsened with the implementation of the 1500-hour rule which severed the pilot pipeline and forced more than 50 communities off the scheduled airline map and now threatens 200 more.

The order comes on the heels of the company’s 30-aircraft order for the ATR 72-600F aircraft with the option to purchase up to 20 more.

“The recent announcements by FedEx Express to purchase both the Cessna SkyCourier 408F and the ATR 72-600F demonstrate the importance of our Feeder network in connecting small communities to the global e-commerce economy,” said FedEx Express Vice President of Supplemental Air Operations Bill West. “Connecting small communities in today’s e-commerce world, where what you order online is expected to be delivered within a matter of days, is strategically significant to not only FedEx but to those communities themselves. We recognize the important role our regional air cargo carrier providers play in the ability for those communities to thrive so our investment is in more than just new planes.”

FedEx also working to help regional cargo carriers with one of its major issues. “FedEx Express is committed to creating innovative pathways to employment in the aviation industry,” added West.  “The introduction of these advanced regional aircraft will generate new employment opportunities for people who are interested in becoming pilots or other aviation professionals.”

Both the cargo and the passenger models will be certified for single-pilot operation which could also help. “Some operators want to use it as a crew airplane so the co-pilot can log second-in-command time,” Textron’s Brad Thress, senior vice-president, engineering, told Skies. “We’re working on that.”

The ability for copilots to log SIC time is an issue on which RACCA has been working.

FedEx’s 50+50 order for the new, small cargoliner stunned the industry. First, it was under the radar since Spring 2017 when FedEx approached the manufacturer and, thus, it was a surprise. Second, it showed FedEx had seen what many entrepreneurs and I had seen for years – there is a growing demand for air service in small communities but a dearth of new aircraft at the small end of the market to meet that demand.

Big orders used to be a thing of the past

Excitement surrounding the SkyCourier 408 followed Cape Air’s 100-aircraft order for Tecnam’s P2012, which achieved its latest major milestone – its first flight – on December 22 when it took to the skies. Since then it has accumulated more than 250 hours. Delivery for the first 20 of the order is just over a year away. The significance of the Cape Air order was the fact that the regional industry has not seen an order this size in quite some time.

Tecnam-P2012-sn2-1440 2
Tecnam P2012 took its first flight in December after RACCA Member Cape Air confirmed an order for 100 aircraft. Photo: Tecnam

The regional cargo airline industry has longed been concerned about its aging fleet. RACCA always highlights the issue at its conference by providing solid guidance on how to cope. Cape Air identified a need to replace its fleet of Cessna 402 a decade ago and has been shepherding the P2012 along since its inception. In the meantime, airlines like Cape Air, Great Lakes and Kenmore Air have developed mini-manufacturing facilities to service small aircraft like the Twin Otter, Beech 1900 and the Cessna 402. So, it is very refreshing that the regional cargo and passenger industries have new aircraft in the offing.

Other new aircraft on the horizon include the Czech LET 410, the Polish Skytruck, China’s Harbin Y-12 and even Piper’s M600. The Viking Air Series 400 Twin Otter was featured during last year’s RACCA conference.

“I think there’s a lot of potential,” Thress told Skies. “I think the market there is as big, or bigger, than the freight version. When we look at the global fleet of Caravans in passenger-carrying operations, it’s pretty extensive, especially in Africa and Asia.”

The Wall Street Journal noted the order comes as air freight market is booming. This clearly makes regional cargo carriers of paramount importance in the freight triangle created by the retailer, cargo carrier and consumer. That is just how the economy is built now.

Rebuilding the commuter industry

Today’s new aircraft – the SkyCourier and P2012 – come at a time when innovative operators are taking a second look at all the communities abandoned by the economic changes within the airline industry – those that used to be the bread and butter of the regional airline industry but have been dropped because of rising costs and changes to mainline priorities in regional airline service.

Some in the regional industry have expressed interest in launching new, independent regionals to serve these abandoned and underserved markets but have bemoaned the fact there are no new aircraft. That can no longer be said with two new offerings coming to market designed specifically for small community air service.

While they may be unpressurized, so, too, is the Twin Otter which is growing in value, according to Winair, a Caribbean regional that wants to add to its fleet. And the Caravan is a much-used aircraft throughout the world as noted by Thress. There are also new regionals like Tropic Ocean Airways, offering both scheduled and charter operations, using the Caravan out of Fort Lauderdale. The Caravan is also the mainstay of the St. Barts Commuter fleet meaning even the rich appreciate its service albeit for a very short flight.

More importantly, the development of the SkyCourier and the P2012 signal that something is happening at the small end of the market and it is a good start.

Traditional regional manufacturers missed the boat

I have been harping at the likes of Embraer, Bombardier, Pratt & Whitney-Canada and GE about this end of the industry saying there is an opportunity there. No, was the universal response, the trend was for bigger aircraft despite a cap on that size courtesy of scope clauses. Indeed, the Embraer’s E2-175 and Mitsubishi’s MRJ are both too heavy for scope.

But others, from airline presidents to manufacturers saw that opportunity and the FedEx and Cape Air orders are a wake-up call. Turns out, I was talking to the wrong guys because there was a lot roiling beneath the surface in their business aviation divisions. Indeed, we cannot ignore the development at GE with its new Advanced Turboprop, which is powering another new Cessna product – the Denali – a single-engine turboprop.

Beyond freight, however, new business models developed to meet the need for intra-regional and intra-state service abandoned by the majors and their regional partners in the last 20 years.

Surf Air with its PC-12 and Wheels Up, flying the Beech King Air, are great examples even if they do not fit the mold of the commuter airlines in the post-deregulation period. While both are complementing their t-prop service with small jets with the Cessna Mustang and the Embraer Phenom 300, they, and others like them have attracted the attention of business aviation manufacturers now that Europe has reformed single-engine turboprop operating (SETOps) rules which provides even more opportunity at the small end of the market. Daher reported at the 2017 SETOps Conference in London it has seen rising demand for its TBM-900 as a result of the regulatory change. It is significant that Piper was also a sponsor of the conference along with Pratt & Whitney-Canada and Textron.

The development of the SkyCourier and Tecnam’s P2012 are significant for another reason. There has not been this much activity in the small end of the market since the mid-1980s when Saab, de Havilland, Shorts, ATR, Embraer and others spotted the opportunity presented by deregulation and began offering newly developed turboprops to meet the growing post-deregulation demand in the new regional airline industry.

Certainly, at the time, the business/general aviation industry – on which these budding airlines relied for the Piper Cherokee and Beech 99s – did not see the new market. Then again, it was in the middle of a boom and didn’t think it needed the business although it did ultimately develop the Beech 1900 and the Swearingen Metro. But the newly developed aircraft from abroad had something business aviation aircraft did not have – the ruggedness to perform 2,000 flight hours annually, far more than most business aviation aircraft ever achieve. So, it is a bit ironic that the business aviation manufacturers are in the mix.

The big thing about FedEx is its commitment to all things small

We already knew about FedEx’s commitment to the small package industry. Heck, it invented it. But now it has signaled its commitment to small communities and small aircraft.

“We worked closely with Textron Aviation to develop the Cessna SkyCourier 408, which includes several key features that will help us grow our business in small and medium-sized markets, especially in the air freight segment,” said FedEx Express President and CEO David Cunningham.

Those features include a twin-engine, high-wing turboprop, digital cockpit, a flat-floor cabin with built-in rollers and 87” by 69” top-hinged door equipped to handle up to three LD3 containers and pallet operations. The aircraft also has a 6,000-pound max payload.

FedEx’s feeder fleet, now pegged at 300 aircraft, under 60,000 pounds maximum gross take-off weight, serves smaller markets in 45 countries. Most of these feeder aircraft are owned by FedEx and are leased and operated by different third-party air carriers under their own operating certificates, according to the company.

Tecnam-CapeAir-Nov-2016-01
Cape Air Senior Vice President Jim Goddard, CEO Dan Wolff, Tecnam CEO Paolo Pascale and Board Member Stan Bernstein who is also president of RACCA pose before the Tecnam P2012.

“These aircraft purchases are part of our long-term feeder fleet strategy,” said FedEx Express Executive Vice President of Air Operations Greg Hall, during the ATR announcement. “That strategy will not only improve our fuel efficiency and fleet reliability, but thanks to a collaborative training program we are planning, will create a reliable pipeline of well-qualified pilot applicants for FedEx Express pilot jobs, leveraging the experience they will gain in our feeder system.”

The SkyCourier’s ambitious service entry in mid-2020, depends on the simplicity of the aircraft and the integration of proven technology throughout the aircraft and systems. If it meets its in-service target that would mean clean sheet to in service in an unheard of three years.

Unlike other modern aircraft, it has aluminum skin, fixed gear and manual flight controls. However, modern avionics – The Garmin G1000 NXi avionics suite – grace the cockpit. The simplicity befits the operation and means higher dispatch reliability. The SkyCourier will cruise up to 200 knots (KTAS) with a 900-nm range. Pratt & Whitney- Canada notches up another airframe for its venerable engine, in this case, the PT6A-65SC engines complete with a fully connected engine monitoring system.

Despite the industry’s many challenges, these are exciting times with a lot of opportunity on the horizon.

fotosearch_k12155813